Monday, July 27, 2009

How to Survive When You're Drowning in a New Job

I've had a lot of "first days" at work in my career, but none were like the summer when I was 19 and got a job as a bank teller.

My trainer, obviously overworked, said to me on the second day: "You know, normally we train someone at least a week or more. But I think you're doing so well I'm just going to let you handle it on your own. Let me know if you have any questions."

She disappeared, and I didn't see her again for two weeks.

You can imagine the outcome. I made lots of mistakes that cost money -- literally. (My cash drawer was always short at the end of the day). I was forced to bug my co-workers constantly with questions. I ended up detesting that job.

So when I got an e-mail from someone telling me how she had felt in over her head on a new job -- I knew it was a story that had to be told. Here's the story I did for my Gannett column:

Darcie Borden believed herself to be fortunate to land a job as an account executive for R&J Public Relations in Bridgewater, N.J. last September, especially when she had little experience in the arena.

It wasn’t long until Borden realized just what that lack of experience meant: insomnia, carb-loading and lots of shallow breathing.

“I was floundering,” she says. “I felt I was in over my head. I couldn’t sleep at night, and I found myself sometimes literally forgetting to breathe.”

While Borden knew there was a learning curve with any new job, she didn’t think her experience as a journalist was serving her well in her new job – despite the fact R&J had hired her after four interviews, fully aware of her background.

“I certainly did not want to admit to any uncertainty. There’s so much competition for jobs these days, and I just didn’t know if they were glad they hired me or not,” she says. “For the first month, I was pretty anxious. I ate lots of carbs.”

Finally, Borden, a self-admitted “perfectionist,” began achieving results. The company also paired her with a mentor, a senior employee who “really helped me calm down and gave me lots of private, non-judgmental feedback.”

Borden’s experience is not that unusual for a new employee, says
Phyllis Mufson, a Philadelphia-based career and business consultant and certified coach. The difference these days, she says, is that employees are terrified they have to learn a new job more quickly in order to avoid being booted back into the unemployment ranks.

“Many firms these days aren’t willing to pay for any training an employee might need,” Mufson says. “And the employee is afraid to ask.”

Another problem is that new employees have to be cautious when telling others they are have difficulty in a new position. “The politics of an organization can be hard to figure out in the beginning. You have to figure out how things work and who has your best interests at heart,” Mufson says.

Anyone faced with learning something quickly can feel overwhelmed and become disorganized, gelling into a mass of anxiety, Mufson says. Coupled with the knowledge that landing a job in this bad employment market is tough only ratchets up the stress for new workers, she adds.

In Borden’s case, she says she’s received lots of support from her employer, and has become more confident as she sees that she has valuable skills, and is now learning new ones. “I’m starting to get more comfortable,” she says. “I don’t think I oversold myself to them. They hired me for my brain and what I know.”

That kind of positive self-talk is important, Mufson says, for any employee who feels they are in over their head. Mufson also advises anyone in this situation should:

• Look for training. “If there are actual skills you need, then you can create a proposal asking for more training,” Mufson says. “But these days, it’s really more up to the worker to get the training they need. “ If that’s the case, then look for online classes, weekend seminars or even a local university student willing to tutor you at home, she says.
• Ask questions. “Be willing to look like a nerd and ask questions when you need to,” she says. “Don’t put yourself down when you do it. It’s much better to ask questions early on in a job rather than later.”
• Talk it up. “Remind yourself of when you’ve been in difficult situations before and you came out of it OK,” she says. “Tell yourself you’ve done it before and you can do it again.”
• Find support. A buddy or mentor who can listen to your concerns, help you come up with some problem-solving and “just let you vet” can help release some anxiety so that you can focus on the issues and not your fear. A career coach also can be a good option.
• Keep your body in tune. Exercise, take yoga or even go online to learn how to do deep breathing to stay calm during these stressful times.

Finally, Mufson says she advises that anyone can avoid feeling overwhelmed in a current career or a future one by making a regular “automatic professional development” deposit.

“It’s just like a Christmas fund. Only with this one you put away money regularly that is for you to do something that keeps your skills updated. It sort of helps take the heat off so you don’t have those ‘uh-oh, I’m in trouble” moments. Lifetime learning is the best strategy against that happening,” she says.

What are some other tips to cope with being overwhelmed at work?

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Anonymous Ian said...

Good suggestions, I don't know how many is willing to admit or even accept they have ever suck at some part at their job.

I had a job where started something similar to your story; where at first I felt lucky getting the job, but over weeks & weeks, I felt I was over my head. As I stucked to the role, I learned a lot from my mistakes. Something like this could get worst and worst as the feelings pile up.

Here are 2 more suggestions:
Talk to your boss on/adjust expectations(It could be all in your head).
Find small victories to pull yourself out of that sinking feeling.

July 28, 2009 11:44 PM  
Blogger Anita said...

I really appreciate your suggestions, which are so great because you've been in that situation and speak from experience. Thanks!

July 29, 2009 6:56 AM  
Anonymous Scot Herrick said...

One of the other areas here is to look at your "adjacent" job skills. Adjacency is where you have one job skill, but what they are asking for the job is something that is close to it. This is what your person did without realizing it -- adjusted because her skills were close (adjacent) to what was needed.

If you are drowning, it is sometimes helpful to go through your job skills and then compare it to what is asked in the job. Upon examination, you may find skills closer than you thought and what you need to do is tweak.

There's a lot of drowning going on out there with all the layoffs, so this is a great and timely article.

August 6, 2009 4:48 PM  
Blogger Anita said...

Good point. I think the first thing we do is panic, then we get depressed -- all emotions that sap our energies and drain us of confidence. I love the idea of "adjacent" skills -- that is a rational approach that can instantly help us see a clear path to making a job work for us and the employer. Thanks!

August 7, 2009 7:00 AM  

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